April 4, 2020

Hammering Away with Henry

July 7, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

For much of his life, Henry Aaron has felt marginalized. Hank Aaron arguably sits atop the baseball pyramid as its home run king. But what about Henry? Blessed with baseball talent that landed him among the best all-around players ever, Hank Aaron assumed a public persona. Meanwhile, “The Hammer” effectively subjugated his private side, Henry.

Read Howard Bryant’s “The Last Hero” because:

1. The author illuminates Aaron in a seldom seen light.

Any numbers of baseball fans assume that after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, the sport and the social landscape forever and completely changed. Look no further than Aaron to see that was not the case.

While sports-starved fans greeted the new Milwaukee ballplayers with adoration on the whole, to the tune of food and drink, cars and gasoline and freebies galore, Aaron received next to nothing. He had to live in the black section of town, “Bronzeville.” His own manager played the role of fair-weather fan of the outfielder. On good days, Charlie Grimm lavished Aaron with praise. Other days, Aaron found himself subject to benching and degrading nicknames. By 1956, Aaron earned recognition within the clubhouse. He garnered the Braves’ MVP honors, but even that didn’t come without a pang. Aaron received the award at a social club that ordinarily would not admit blacks.

Just when Aaron might have hoped he had achieved acceptance, he was betrayed. An appearance on The Saturday Evening Post cover pushed Aaron into the mainstream just like Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, or Willie Mays in theory. In reality, the writer characterized Aaron as a naive subordinate to the baseball men he every bit equaled with his numbers. Meanwhile, even as Aaron excelled on the field, his status had not solidified. Aaron’s few peers knew what to expect on a daily basis – Willie, Mickey and The Duke were center field staples in the heart of the batting order. In contrast, it was anyone’s guess where Aaron would appear.

Make no mistake, there was much work left to do after Jackie Robinson. Henry Aaron twice overcame his own baseball color barriers, first in the minor leagues, and then as the first black star on a southern major league team. As Bryant writes, “His road in many ways was no less lonely, and in other ways, far more difficult.” (305, Last).

2. A sense of the pressure Aaron faced as an enigma, and much later as a legend, helps readers further appreciate the baseball great.

Henry Aaron knew that he was the last hope of his generation for toppling Ruth’s home run record. He knew that was his best shot at cementing a legacy in baseball. With the home run mark coming into view, Aaron steeled himself. Kids provided relief that few others could. They “couldn’t help but make Henry feel young and full, and above all, appreciated.” (326) Otherwise, “nothing got between Henry Aaron and his business.” (334)

One might think a place at the top would give way to euphoria. Not so for Henry Aaron and his home run quest. More and more requests flooded Aaron during his final ascent to 715. “I just want to play baseball. That’s it,” he confided to his advisor. (371) Aaron didn’t say much more to reporters after he assailed the mark. “I’m going home.” That was it. “I’m going home.” (401)

3. Period news stories guide readers through a magnificent career.

“Aaron’s Swap: Crown for Pennant” reads one. “Aaron Ties Mays for 2D Place” reads another, and “Aaron’s Brilliance Leaves a Memory” reads a third.

If you really want to know Henry Aaron beyond the Hank Aaron the public knows, read “The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron.”

Sam Miller is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he worked with various teams in sports information and received the Freedom Forum – NCAA Sports Journalism Scholarship for his achievements. During the 2009 season, Miller served as communications intern for the Angels’ Triple-A affiliate. Prior to that, he worked as a communications intern for USA Basketball and as an associate reporter for MLB.com.

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